Books I read in 2008
Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffiths
I was really looking forward to reading "Pip Pip". I'd bought it at the start of the year after reading some recommendations at the end of 2007, the reviews on the cover also sounded ecstatic, and it was about the subject of "time", which I find really interesting.
Unfortunately it turned out that the book was in many ways a real disappointment to me (in spite of all those great reviews). From the start the tone is frequently rather patronising, and with many irritating - and irrelevant - clever-clever puns, pseudo-puns and other flourishes, and the pacing is breakneck (reading this book often felt like being battered around the head by a whirlwind of ideas and opinions). Many of the themes feel underdeveloped and underexplored, often serving merely as springboards to caricature and berate various vague percieved bogeymen (which seem to include corporations, Christainity, scientists, and the nuclear industry) that are held responsible for all that is wrong with modern Western society. I felt that there were often inaccuracies or misunderstandings which undermined the conclusions that they were supposed to support.
Ultimately though I think that the biggest disappointment for me was how I felt it wasted a great opportunity to really examine many of our modern ideas about time (including concepts of history and progress), to make explicit how these ideas inform our world view, and how alternative ideas of time might give us profound new insights and ways of living. Frustratingly, while there are occasional hints of this (for example in the examination of tradition and ritual and the idea of "carnival", and the suggestion that the current trend of preserving old buildings whilst ignoring old traditions that are dying out, is emblematic of our society's emphasis of the material over the cultural), these are rarely pursued, and instead I felt that I was simply being told what I should be thinking.
It seems ironic that a book that claims to be arguing for a slower approach to life should zoom along at such high speed (something it has in common with In Praise of Slow). It seems equally ironic that its complaints about the superficiality of modern life should feel so shallow, that its arguments for diversity of ideas should feel so intolerant of those that don't agree, and that its exhortations to have more fun should feel so serious and devoid of humour.
"Pip Pip" compares unfavourably with a couple of books that I was thinking of while reading it: the first is Roger Deakin's Wildwood, which describes a world which operates on different time scales that are tied more closely to the rhythms of nature. Deakin's book doesn't try to romanticise this world, and acknowledges the challenges that come with the world changing. The second book is Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By, which discusses amongst other things the role of tradition and ritual in society. Again there is an acknowledgement that as the world changes old ways are lost - but Campbell suggests that as we can't go back, the challenge is to look forward and make the future better. All I got from "Pip Pip" was that "modern" is bad while "old" is good.
I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I suppose that one good thing I can say about is that it really challenged me and made me think (though probably not in the way that the author intended). That's not a bad thing, and I don't feel that it was a waste of time. It might even be that I'm so locked in my own view of time that I'm unable to appreciate the arguments in "Pip Pip" - maybe I just missed the point. But I really feel that this could have been a truly amazing book that could have fundamentally changed my view of time, and it's disappointing that instead it seems to be content just to preach to the converted.
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin
This is another book that's taken a long time to read, I started back at the end of September and finally finished it at the beginning of December. But that doesn't mean it was a bad book - without a real narrative thread, it's the kind of book that lends itself to dipping in and out of. Reading it has been a bit like going on a meandering journey through an imaginary landscape made up not just of places, but also trees, people, animals and ideas, and like his previous book Waterlog there are sections that I really wanted to take my time over and really savour.
It's difficult to say concisely what this book is about. It isn't just about trees, and it's not a guidebook - it's really a celebration of people's relationships with trees and forests, and with wood as a material. It's about how people relate to trees in cultural, spiritual, environmental and practical ways - for example as sources of materials for building and making things (utensils, houses, cars), as sources of food for animals and themselves, and as things that need to be maintained and looked after.
I like that while Deakin has a romantic streak and sees magic in both trees and wood, he also talks about the practicalities of maintaining the trees and the forests and the hard work it can involve. I enjoyed the fact that he writes from his own personal experiences of maintaining trees and hedges, woodworking, growing fruit trees. There is a depth of knowledge and feeling that is often missing from books where the authors have taken more of a passing interest (however heartfelt) just for the purpose of writing a book. "Wildwood" describes a substantial, practical and even-handed relationship between man and nature, a world where people live in partnership with the trees: management of the forests is essential if they are to be used sustainably as sources of food, materials and fuel, and if they are mismanaged then both forests and people will suffer. With this comes a recognition that change is inevitable, and that conserving the forests as a public resource while still exploiting them is an ongoing challenge.
Deakin's style is low-key but friendly. There's no polemic: instead, his ethusiasm for and knowledge of trees is implicit through the entire book. When writes about the construction of "benders" (tent-like shelters made from lengths of supple wood bent into arches), or the work of "coppicing" trees and "plashing" a hedgerow (respectively, cutting trees down to stumps to harvest the wood, and weaving together branches in the hedge to form an impenetrable barrier), it's without any real introduction - almost as if Deakin credits the reader with sufficient where-with-all to go and find out about the technical details themselves, since this book isn't about that stuff.
Like "Waterlog" the book gave me a sense of life in a different Britain to one that I know, where people have a different relationship to the land. However, this book extends beyond Britain, to Australia and Eastern Europe. One of the most memorable sections describes a journey that begins with a search for the ancestors of apples in the Tien Shan mountains of Khazakstan and ends with Deakin travelling through the walnut forests of Kyrgystan.
In other parts of the book he touches on such diverse topics as green men, the use of wood veneers in Jaguar motor cars, observing moths at night in the forest, and David Nash's "Wooden Boulder" (a wandering artwork that floated down a river and into an estuary, and which the artist periodically goes in search of by boat). Along the way Deakin throws out all kinds of fascinating facts inspired by the things he's describing. I also enjoyed his observations, which often reminded me of my own experiences - for example, seeing birds and plants in foreign lands that reminded him of the wildlife back home in Britain, or his hoarding of wood for woodworking (like Kyle's hoarding of fabric for sewing, or my hoarding of books).
I suppose that it was fitting that a book about trees should take a while to read, since the rhythm of the lives of trees themselves are much slower than those of people like me. Sadly Roger Deakin died in August 2006 at age 63 shortly after completing the manuscript for "WildWood" (you can read an obituary in the Guardian), but this book and "Waterlog" (with their love for living in and with nature) form a great legacy to leave behind.
Hallam Foe by Peter Jinks
I picked this book up at Borders just before my most recent trip to New Jersey. I didn't really need another book but I liked the yellow cover and the fact that it was relatively thin. I knew that there was a film of "Hallam Foe" but I hadn't seen it and I was intrigued by the title, which sounded dark and mysterious. However, it turns out that in the tradition of books like Alan Warner's Morven Callar, the title is actually the name of the principle character.
Hallam Foe is a young man with a penchant for surreptiously observing his family and neighbours, meticulously logging their comings and goings. Still trying to make sense of his mother's suicide, he sees himself as apart from the world that he watches, and feels somehow superior to other people as he believes he has special insight into their lives. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to help him understand his uncommunicative father or his manipulative stepmother any better, and when he continues his voyeurism after being "banished" to Edinburgh it doesn't help him understand the new people that he becomes involved with either. Ultimately Hallam ends up engaging with the world in a messy way that for a while like it's going to end in tragedy but ultimately (and almost comically) seems to work out sort of okay.
I'm still not sure what "Hallam Foe" is really about. There are various plot strands through which Hallam seems to pass without any particular resolution. Maybe that's the point - Hallam seems unwilling to participate in real lives because they are messy, don't always follow a clean narrative arc, and you can't know all the facts. The book's ending also seems to avoid closure, as if the idea is that in the end "life just goes on".
It's certainly an engaging read, and over the course of a week in Hawaii I found myself making more and more time to pick it up. I finished it late one night in Maui when I should have been catching up with my sleep before an early start the next day. The place that we were staying had a communal book collection so I left it there - maybe someone there now is already enjoying "Hallam Foe".
Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
How long did it take to read this book? I remember starting it back towards the end of June, and finally finishing it mid-September. That's not to say that it's a bad book, or even particularly long - I'd been on a few trips where I'd decided that it was just a bit too large to take with me, and as a result several weeks went by when I didn't read a word.
I'm not sure how I would describe this book really - it's superficially a bit like one of O'Reilly's computing "cookbooks", at least in its format. It consists of about a hundred "hacks" which essentially each describe a particular neurological or psychological effect, explaining how it manifests itself, various experiments that have been performed to investigate it (including some you can try at home) and possible explanations as to how the effect might have arisen based on the research.
In spite of the title, the hacks in this case are not so much things that you can do to your brain but are more likely to be tricks employed by the brain to shortcut time-consuming processing, for example by always assuming that a light falls from above, or by making you react instinctively when something "looms" in your vision. There's also a lot of interesting stuff in here that basically goes back to our primitive roots as animals trying to survive in a hostile world, for example we appear to have an instinct to assume that animate entities are behind events. This is probably useful in an environment where noises in the forest might be some predator coming after you, but it might also explain our readiness (as a species) to believe in supernatural forces or even gods.
So it's a book filled with a lot of fascinating information, and it felt quite far reaching in it's coverage of lots of different aspects of the brain and the mind. At the same time personally I also found all that detail a little bit overwhelming, and in the end I think that's why I remember a number of individual hacks rather than having a coherent picture of how all these things actually stack up as a whole. Still I'm fascinated by how many things I've heard or read about since finishing this book which remind me of something that I've read, including most recently an experiment investigating out-of-body experiences reported by cardiac arrest victims at various hospitals in the UK (something that is also mentioned in this book). So I can very easily imagine returning to this again sometime in the future.
How to Be Your Own Best Friend by Paul A. Hauck
I'm really getting through my old books now! I've had this one since 2004, at least according to the receipt that's still tucked inside the front cover. I remember seeing this book at a friend's house earlier that year and feeling like being my own best friend was something I would like to learn how to be. (What sealed it for me is the picture on the cover, which is wonderful cartoon drawing of an elephant spraying water on her own back from her trunk.)
I enjoyed reading this book for a few reasons. A lot of the advice seems good - of course, it's following it that's the difficult part but no book can ever do that for you - but I also enjoyed the author's style, which wasn't slick but down-to-earth, just the right side of patronising almost. I also enjoyed his various anecdotes which are taken from his own experience and which he uses to illustrate how some of the advice is applied in practice.
At the core of it all it's pretty simple I suppose: you have to learn to like yourself, even when you might feel like something you've done is bad. There's more to it of course, like learning to control your emotions and being assertive, and there is advice on these things too. It's quite a short book and I think that I will try to give it a second read sometime in the near future.
Total Swimming: How the Perfect Exercise Can Offer Rewards Both to the Body and to the Inner Self by Harvey S. Wiener
I can't remember when I got this book, but it must have been a couple of years ago now when I was really getting into swimming and I bought some new goggles from Swimming Without Stress. I guess I was intrigued enough by the recommendation on the website that "if you love swimming or want inspiration to swim, you must read this book." Of course it then proceeded to sit on my bookshelf, next to all the other books I bought on swimming that I have yet to read properly.
I love swimming, but towards the middle of this year I found myself starting to enjoy my swims less than I used to and this began to bother me. Then, flicking through the introduction to Ian Cross' book "Swimming Without Stress: Lessons for Land Lovers" I read about how Ian had found himself in a similar position with regard to swimming, and how reading "Total Swimming" had given him a new and fresh perspective. So I decided that I would take it with me on my trip to New Jersey in July, with the hope that it would work similar magic for me.
It's a very interesting book. The author (writing in 1981) describes how he came to swimming at the age of 37 and how he quickly felt like it's the perfect exercise for everyone - he's like a swimming evangelist and he wants the reader to see the light and be converted into a born-again swimmer themselves. To this end he quotes a lot of research and a lot of figures and it's good stuff, although I wasn't always convinced that this meant that swimming was the "best" exercise. But that didn't bother me - I'm already a swimmer, after all.
Where the book started to engage me though was when Harvey Wiener starts to make a distinction between competitive and recreational sports, which was something I'd never really thought about before. Why are you swimming? If you're doing it competitively then your aim is to go faster, further, longer and so on, and there is plenty of advice out there to help you with that (including some of the aforementioned books still on my shelves). But if you're not competing, if you're interested in recreational swimming, then perhaps you need a different perspective - one that focuses on how it feels to be in the water, and that values experience over achievement. To me that's a genuinely novel insight (and one that could be applied to many things, not just swimming). It was this dimension of the book that was most interesting to me, and I have to say that since finishing it I have a new attitude when I'm in the pool and I've started to enjoy my swimming a lot more again.
There are other practical details in the book, including tips on things like technique and pool etiquette and so on. A lot of this was interesting to me too - for example his advice on eating before swimming addressed some of the things that I'd been wondering about in this regard. I feel it's a book that will reward repeated reading in the future, and I think that it's a real shame that it's now out of print - I'd really recommend getting a copy, because it's a really wonderful book. To quote the Swimming Without Stress website again: "It is not a book about how to swim faster or train better but it may change your life."
Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places by Griff Rhys Jones
I picked this up pretty much on a whim at Manchester airport while waiting for my flight to New Jersey - I had just started reading "Rashomon" and I wasn't sure that it would last the duration of a seven-hour flight (my mistake: it was more than adequate, when coupled with viewings of Be Kind Rewind and Run Fatboy Run). This book is based on a TV series that Griff Rhys Jones presented in 2007, although I'd never heard of it before. It looked a bit thin for the price but I was intrigued by the fact that it has a section on the Pennines (which I thought of as more hills than mountains), plus it also has some nice colour pictures in a little glossy section in the middle of the book. So I decided to give it a shot.
The premise as sold is that Griff travels around Britain and climbs hills and mountains, but in fact he seems to spend at least as much time not climbing them but instead talking to people who live in these places, learning about how the landscape has been shaped by agriculture and industry over the last few centuries. It's quite insightful to realise that a lot of what we consider to be "natural" landscape is in many ways a man-made thing, and I was reminded a number of times of some of the themes in Rebecca Solnit's book on walking, Wanderlust. It's also interesting to read his encounters with the very diverse set of people who are making their lives in these places: some are following very traditional ways of living, like the farmers and shepherds, while others are finding new livelihoods.
Interspersing all this are various facts about the actual mountains and hills that Griff tackles, as well as his actual attempts to walk, run and climb many of them. I liked the fact that he approaches these exploits not as a seasoned pro but as an ordinary middle-aged man who is perhaps not as fit as he would like to be, in a way that was quite inspiring - as are many of his descriptions of the landscape and the climbs. (I also enjoyed his occasional asides acknowledging the fact that he's making a TV programme, which most of the time calls for him to ignore the fact that he's accompanied by a crew of cameramen and sound recordists and pretend that he's doing all this alone.)
It's not all fantastic though: as with all these books I miss having some handy maps to help me locate the various places, and I think it would have benefitted immensely from something like this. I also felt that Griff lacked commitment in some of his endeavors, which I suppose was the downside of him doing these things in order to make a TV programme (rather than the TV programme being a by-product of his passion to discover and explore these places); but maybe that's just another reality of how television is made.
I also read a review on Amazon which suggested that there are a lot of factual errors in the book, but I think that this bothers me less basically because I can hardly remember most of what I read anyway, and besides I wasn't reading it as a textbook or guidebook. In some ways it reminded me a little of reading Roger Deakin's Waterlog last year - someone journeying around a Britain that seems steeped in history and a degree of wildness missing from my suburban life. So at the very least I think that I will try to see the TV series, and (even better than that) I will try to visit some of these places myself.
Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Originally I became aware of "Rashomon" because of the famous film by Akira Kurosawa, which I think I saw on TV over 10 years ago now. The book (or rather, short story) is also mentioned in the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog, but it's been a while since I saw that too. So I don't know exactly what prompted me to get a copy of the original text recently.
In fact "Rashomon" is only one of a number of stories in this collection, and surprisingly it turns out that the Kurosawa film essentially takes only its title and a visual motif from it - in fact another story in the collection, "In a Bamboo Grove" is actually the basis for the events in the film - several witnesses give contradictory accounts of the rape of a woman and the murder of a samurai warrior by a bandit, and at the core of the story there is the question of whether people can agree on what the "truth" is. (In spite of the mix-up of the titles, the first story even lends its name to something called the Rashomon Effect.)
However there are many other stories in this collection, which span serveral different eras and styles, and while many of them are very dark (in particular "Hell Screen" in this translation reminds me of the best of M.R. James' ghost stories, which are truly chilling) others have a grim humour that feels very modern, in spite of being written in the early 20th century. It was a very pleasant surprise to discover this collection and I'm grateful to whatever spirit inspired me to finally seek the original story out.
In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore
Yet another book that I've had sitting on my shelf for a long time now (probably since early 2005, shortly after it came out). At the time, with the feeling that life was a bit too busy and that there was not enough time in the day to balance work alongside my personal life, the idea of "slowing down" felt very attractive. I'd already had one stab at reading it but for some reason (maybe a lack of time? I'm not joking) meant that I didn't get much further than the first couple of chapters. This time however I made it to the end.
I feel like it's a rather flawed book about a very interesting idea. Ironically (or perhaps not; the author admits at the beginning that he is a "speedaholic") the style often felt very breathless, as if he were rushing to get all the different facets of the "Slow movement" crammed into each chapter. I also found myself slightly irritated by the somewhat flimsy evidence presented to support the idea that a set of very diverse groups and activities somehow constitute a single worldwide movement. Much of it seemed to be based purely on anecdote (the nadir for me being the chapter on complementary medicine, which I found particularly annoying), and it was hard sometimes to see a connection between many of the "slow" activities, other than that they use the word "slow". The example that stuck in my mind most vividly was that of the "super-slow" workout, which supposedly only takes 20 minutes every other day - this seemed to be almost the complete opposite to the idea that underpins (for example) the "slow food" movement: take time to enjoy the things that you do, to savour them and take pleasure in them.
But aside from all that, at the heart of the book there is a genuinely important point, that in many ways modern life offers such a wide range of opportunities and at the same time instills us with the notion that we should be experiencing them all. We're become slaves to trying to fit everything in, and focus on quantity of experience at the expense of quality. I could think of a lot of examples of times where I've done that myself, both at work and in my personal life, and the reasons for it are often many and varied. As a result we suffer as individuals both physically, mentally and emotionally. So I suppose "In Praise of Slow" could be seen more as a snapshot of how different people feel this problem and how they're choosing to try and counter it. All the irritations aside, there are clearly a lot of interesting and varied movements that have sprung up in response.
I guess my final reflection on this book was sometime from my own life: a few years ago Kyle bought me a big mug with a quote on it that read "Peace ... does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart" and I feel that's the real challenge, to live in the modern world without being swept away by it. So in spite of all its flaws I did really enjoy reading this book, and I'm glad that I finally got back to it in the end.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
I'm currently on a real roll with reading books that I've had sitting around unread for years - this is another one that has been gathering dust since 2004, when I think it was chosen by the book group that I used to go to. I bought the book but never read it (until now), and I never went back to the book group either (but that's another story).
"The Secret Life of Bees" is a sort of coming-of-age story, told by a young girl called Lily living in South Carolina in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, and the upheavals associated with that time quietly form not only the backdrop but also part of the backbone of the story. Lily, who lost her mother in a tragic accident when she was much younger, breaks her black nurse Rosaleen out of jail after the latter has had in a run-in with some racists, and runs away from her abusive father in search of the truth about her mother. By a series of coincidences they end up with a trio of bee-keeping sisters who's own take on Christianity involves a Black Madonna, and over time Lily learns the truth about her mother while also growing up herself.
Thinking about it now, there is a real lightness of touch to the the storytelling in this book and it was a real pleasure to read. It almost has a touch of magical realism about it, and yet in a way it all feels quite plausible. Towards the end of the book it suddenly occurred to me that this could be a book for teenagers, but it is definitely an "adult" read too. Having finally read it, I'm glad I didn't just give it away as I'd thought about doing once or twice. And I also find myself wondering what the book group made of it: there are certainly a many images and themes that linger on after I finished reading.
Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tale of an Antarctic Tragedy by Lennard Bickel
This was another book that I've had sitting on my shelf for longer than I care to remember, however this one was a gift from my friend Steve so I was feeling particularly guilty for not having read it before now. Anyway, it turned out to be a gripping read in the end - it tells the story of the men who travelled to the Ross ice shelf on the coast of Antartica, charged with the task of laying supply depots at various points for Shackleton's 1915 expedition that was hoping to cross the continent starting from the Weddell Sea on the opposite side. As it turned out, Shackleton's expedition never made it across Antartica, as a result of various catastrophes - and Shackleton is remembered now for his epic journey to fetch help for his men marooned on the shores.
As this book says, Shackleton's heroic tale has overshadowed the story of the support team, the "forgotten men" of the title, who suffered their own disasters but who somehow found a way to complete their mission and lay the depots for the expedition that was never to arrive. The tales of their privations out on the Antartica ice are truly unbelieveable, and in fact almost unimaginable to me - eating barely enough to keep them alive, walking across the snow for months on end in a completely inhospitable environment, and dependent for their survival on aging and failing equipment. It's incredible enough that they even managed to survive (although some of them didn't), nevermind that they also laid the provisions for Shackleton, and the story of their fight for survival is gripping.
I don't think that I would quite agree with the book's subtitle however - I didn't get the sense of it being a "tragedy", although it's true that tragic things did happen. It seems more uplifting in the end than that. Also the book doesn't attempt to address a broader question that lingered at the back of my mind through all this - what was it that motivated these men to go to Antartica in the first place? What was the drive that made Shackleton want to cross the continent on foot, something that you could argue served no practical purpose at all? Could it be that they saw in these endeavours an opportunity to do something grand and heroic? It's probably not reasonable to expect the book to answer that - and doesn't detract from their achievements, or from their amazing story. So all in all, a great read.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
At the moment I'm making an effort to clear out the books that I've had for years on my shelves and never read, and as a result I've finally got around to reading "The Stone Diaries", which I suspect I've had sitting around since sometime in 2004. I remember reading another Carol Shields book, Unless, in mid-2003, and I think that I bought this immediately afterwards purely because I'd heard that it was a good book. However once I had it I think that I was put off by the back-cover blurb, as the idea of reading the (fictional) life story of some 90-year old woman didn't really appeal to me. Well it turns out that it is a good book and in fact I did very much enjoy reading the life story of a 90-year old woman.
"The Stone Diaries" is an episodic life history of Daisy Goodwill, whose mother dies giving birth to her at the start of the 20th century and who dies herself near the end of that century, leaving behind her own children and grandchildren. I think that I was engaged at the start by the writing which reminded me of some magical realism novels that I've read in the past (though I wouldn't describe this as magical realism). It's not really a biography, in that many significant events (both in world history and even in Daisy's own life) are left out and only implied; there is no sense of the changes that happened in the world through the 20th century; and although it focuses a lot on the characters' inner lives, really it doesn't feel like we get particularly close to them either for some reason. I didn't feel like this was necessarily a bad thing though - I think what I felt at the end of the book was a sense of a world in which individual people act out their lives, living and dying, but at the same time life (and the world) goes on, and that we all play a part however small in the direction that it takes. I don't know if this is what Carol Shields intended as the message (if any) of her book, but certainly I was glad that I'd finally gotten around to reading it.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit
It took me a while to finish reading this cultural history of walking, but maybe that was appropriate - the phrase "the mind at 3 miles an hour" is cited a few times to denote the close link between walking and thinking that many historical figures have had. And the book certainly made me think, especially since, as someone who doesn't own a car, walking is my principle method of getting around.
What becomes clear is that people's reasons for walking have varied greatly over time, social class, gender and physical location - walking is very different depending on whether you're doing it for pleasure or out of necessity, whether you're in a city or in the country, and whether you're a man or a woman. It was also interesting to read how attitudes to walking have changed over the last few centuries, particularly the "romantic" notion that walking in nature is something inherently (morally or spiritually) good, is really a cultural invention which has arisen relatively recently. People's relationship with and attitudes to the environment through which they walk about is tightly bound up with their culture.
Solnit (who lives in California) talks about how the rise of car culture and corresponding changes in urban planning to accommodate it have often been made at the expense of walkers, and that in some places (such as Guiliani's New York) walking has increasingly been seen as an activity undertaken by social undesirables (a status that ironically it seems to have had in pre-Industrial Revolution England).
Towards the end of the book she suggests that attitudes to walking to some extent reflect our attitudes to own bodies - people who travel to a gym in order to walk or run a similar distance that they drove, have a very different view of their body compared to someone who walks in order to get around. While I found all of the book fascinating, this point made a particularly strong impression on me and made me question my own attitudes (it was also a contributory factor in finally making me clean off my bike and start cycling again). Overall, while "Wanderlust" wasn't exactly an easy read for me it was certainly very compelling and thought-provoking, and would I think be very interesting to read again sometime.
The Language of the Genes by Steve Jones
Another book that I found at the Daresbury Lab library, this was my second attempt at reading it after the first attempt was cut short by the book being recalled by someone else. It seemed fitting in a way to follow a book on the evolution of written language with a book about the "language" of life itself - in fact in one chapter Jones explicitly draws the parallel himself, and gives a pretty good potted history of the alphabet as an illustration of how genes also evolve.
This was an interesting read and certainly covers a lot of ground, as well as including lots of succulent snippets of trivia, and the opening and closing chapters (particularly the last one, which talked about the future evolution of the human race) I thought were particularly strong. However I felt that I lost my way a little in the middle sections of the book, which seemed to suffer from "gene shopping list syndrome" (an affliction that also affects other books on a similar subject) - the tendency to quote lots of different genes and the conditions that are associated with them. It's this shopping list approach which I have always found hardest to deal with - there's no underlying rules, and it makes the job of biology feel more like simple categorisation than an attempt to get at some more fundamental truth. But maybe that's just my prejudice as a physicist! and of course this isn't supposed to be a textbook.
Overall I found this book thought-provoking and in places it gave me a genuine new insight into things that I thought I already understood, and I think that I'd recommend it to the lay person who wanted a broad and readable introduction to genetics.
*Postscript:* while I was reading this book I was reminded of a paper that I'd read some time last year after hearing a reference to it in a seminar. The paper is "Can a Biologist Fix a Radio? - or, What I Learned while Studying Apoptosis" by Yuri Lazebnik. It's been published at least twice, the version I read is a reprint from Biochemistry (Moscow), Vol. 69, No. 12, 2004, pp. 1403-1406.
From what I remember, in the article Lazebnik offers an analysis of how biologists go about trying to determine gene function by considering how the same methodology might be applied to fixing a transistor radio. It's very interesting and as well as being very funny, and also offers a number of insights into the culture of scientific research.
Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World by John Man
How long have I had this book, and never read it until now? Probably since 2001. I remember starting it once and not getting past the introduction, after which it languished on my bookshelves surviving various reshuffles and clear-outs. I think that in the outside world it may even have gone out of print (rather ironically, given its subject).
Now that I've read it, I wish that I had picked it up again a bit sooner, because this is a fascinating book. As someone said to me when I told them about it, you don't very often think about the origins of the alphabet and yet it is quite an incredible invention. John Man traces the origins of our own Latin alphabet forwards through history from the Egyptians (it probably originated from a form of hieroglyphics) through the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Greeks and Etruscans, to the Romans. I found it a most enlightening journey, taking in various ancient civilisations and cultures - many of them now lost and only dimly remembered, which also makes it something of an archeological detective story.
Man's thesis is that new forms of writing - and thus new alphabets - tend to arise on the margins of empires, in cultures trying to establish themselves and their identity by taking existing scripts and modifying them for their own purposes. "Everyday" writing was also useful for record keeping by traders and administrators. On the way I learned more about history (never my strong point) alongside lots of interesting trivia (for example that the Phoencians name comes from the purple dye that they made from snails and which they traded across the Mediterranean - or that the Times New Roman font was based on the serif font that the Romans used in their monuments).
So, I'm sorry that it took me so long to get around to reading this book - but I'm glad I did in the end, and I'd recommend it to anyone else that they do the same.
Smile When You're Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson
I really enjoyed this book (another that Kyle bought me, this time for Valentine's day) however it's rather difficult to categorise - the subtitle "Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer" doesn't really do it justice. Although as an (ex?) travel writer Chuck Thompson clearly has a beef with the travel writing industry (and airs it frequently), the various chapters are far more varied than just "telling it like it really is" - for example, the stories of how big oil ruined Alaska and his time as an English teacher in Japan couldn't really be called travel writing, although they (like the story of his short-lived editorship of Travelocity's ill-fated travel magazine) are fascinating and often very funny.
I found it was the little details of his life as a travel hack that were most revealing about how the travel writing industry. For example in one memorable segment he recounts how he and his girlfriend try to enjoy a luxurious meal in a romantic Carribean setting, while the PR woman for the hotel that have paid for it sits and ruins it for them. Ultimately it seems that it's in no-one's interests to "tell it like it is" - travel writers so poor that they can't afford to turn down the next commission, and know that a bad review would be career suicide.
Aside from all that Thompson has an engaging and very readable style and also offers some interesting takes on how the world has changed in many ways over the last 20 years as he's travelled around. It was a great read - thanks Kyle!
Lost In Translation: Misadventures in English Abroad by Charlie Croker
My sister got this for me for Christmas, and I really enjoyed it. In fact I found this far far funnier than I feel I ought to have done, given that it's essentially laughing at examples of how non-English speakers have mangled the English language in brochures, signs, instructions and warnings. In a way, laughing almost feels a bit mean. However: some of these mistranslations are just plain funny, and when you're feeling a little low and want something to tickle you, this is exactly the kind of stuff that you need.
Aside from that, I also enjoyed the strange poetry and lyricism that seems to permeate many of the Japanese- and Chinese-to-English mistranslations, for example: "Little grass is smiling slightly, please walk on the pavement", "Push button. Foam coming plenty. Big noise. Finish." (washing machine instructions), "Confidence of creating deliciousness. This tastiness can not be carried even by both hands." (from the box of a chocolate dessert cake), "This light and smooth taste drink is the best refreshment to you. Anytime, anywhere, just like your friend" (drink label), "Dirty Water Punishment Place" (description of a sewage treatment plant on a map) ... I could go on. My favourite though (a film subtitle in Hong Kong): "I will kill you until you are dead from it!".
The Key by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki
I'm not sure quite why I ended up buying this book, I suspect that it was an Amazon recommendation after buying Taming the Beast and I really liked the cover artwork. Like "Taming the Beast", "The Key" also tells a story of an ultimately destructive sexual relationship, but it couldn't be more different - the story is told through the parallel diary entries of a Japanese husband and wife, each recording their thoughts about their relationship "secretly" whilst being convinced that the other is reading these thoughts. It's a much more subtle, sympathetic and plausible story that "Taming the Beast" - a thought-provoking read that I found surprisingly enjoyable, given the subject.
oPtion$: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs, a Parody by Daniel Lyons
This is a fictionalised account of the Apple "options scandal" written by someone calling himself "Fake Steve Jobs", and like all good books published these days it's based on a blog. I think that Kyle bought me this for my birthday because she knows how much I love my iPod shuffle, and I'm always raging about Steve Jobs (that's another story).
While this is ostensibly about the aforementioned scandal (whereby the award of share options had alledgedly been backdated to a time when the share price was low, ensuring that the recipient instantly made a profit on them), really it's a send-up of Jobs and Apple generally - for example, Apple's design of new products always beginning with the advertising campaign - and the character of Fake Steve is particularly unappealing. The real Steve Jobs is quoted as describing the parody as "pretty funny", so he must be made of sterner stuff than me.
But it *is* pretty funny, and it's made me go out and read up a bit about the real Steve Jobs. And interestingly, of course it was using a NeXT machine (the computer built by Jobs after being dumped by Apple in 1986) that Tim Berners-Lee began to develop what ultimately turned into the world-wide web. (Perhaps less impressively but still personally significant, the NeXT was also used in the development of the computer game Doom.)
Daniel Lyons is still writing his Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog, and information on the real Steve Jobs can be found in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs. Thanks Kyle!
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen
This was another book that I failed to read on holiday last year: this time it was on our vacation to Myrtle Beach last October. It's another time-travel-based book - Charlotte the harlot from 1890s Copenhagen falls through time into "the Tin City" in "the Information Age" (i.e. modern day London). It's fun - there is a lightness of touch and comic undertone which doesn't overwhelm the evocation of the different times and places, and the various characters that inhabit (and travel between) them. (As an aside, I'm also fascinated by the different mechanisms proposed for time travel in these books - compare for example with the time-travelling gene as in The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger or the very original method of "believing" your way into the past, as in Jack Finney's Time and Again.)
I suspect that the style is a pastiche of period novels but I haven't read enough to really know. I do know that I really enjoyed it, and it's interested me in reading other stuff by Liz Jensen in the future.
The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
This was something of an impulse buy - the cover caught my eye when I was shopping for a Christmas present for my dad last December - and it turned out to be a fascinating read, being pretty much an introduction to economics for people like me who, well, don't know very much at all about economics.
I think what hooked me in was the promise of explaining "price targeting" and why "information asymmetry" is a bad thing for the market, and consquently how coffee chains like Costa and Starbucks (as well as supermarkets) find ways to charge people quite different amounts for essentially the same products, and why it isn't possible to buy a decent second-hand car. But there's lots of good stuff in there aside from that, about how economics works (and doesn't work) in the real world, written in a very readable and entertaining style. I'm sure that the people I was with at the time rapidly became fed up with yet another "insight" at breakfast after I'd been reading the night before, and yet I know that there are lots of things that I didn't quite get or remember. So I'd definitely like to read this again sometime.
Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee
I think that this book is out of print now, rather aptly perhaps I got mine second-hand via one of Amazon's marketplace sellers - one of the many things that have been made possible thanks to the invention and uptake of the World Wide Web.
Interestingly the full title of the book on the fly-leaf appends the words "By Its Inventor" to the already unweildy "Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web", and although the book is perhaps a bit old now (it was originally published in 1999) it is still a fascinating first-hand account of the origins of a technology that is ubiquituous. I remember my first encounter with the web back in 1994 (running Mosiac on a UNIX workstation) and through Tim Berners-Lee's account of the development of the web it becomes clear that at the beginning there was no guarantee that the project would ever have succeeded to the extent that it has. It's also interesting to learn that while Berners-Lee didn't personally make a fortune through the web, he nonetheless hoped from the start that it would support commercial uses as well as the free dissemination of all kinds of material, and the web has certainly delivered in both areas. Equally his hope that the web would become a "two-way" medium seems to have been realised in some form through applications such as blogging (although all that seemed a long way off in 1999 I'm sure).
The tail of the book focuses on the then-future of the web as seen 9 years ago, but in a way I felt like at that point the story was almost up-to-date - certainly while I've heard previously about the "Semantic Web" (I read about it in Peter Morville's intriguing Ambient Findability), it doesn't seem to have come to pass, or at least to have entered the mainstream yet. Maybe like some of the other ideas that he talks about, maybe it will - just not in the form he originally imagined.
Overall a really interesting read, especially if you're interested in the development of the web, and highly recommended.